Yesterday has been one of those days when I’m glad of being a virtual reality blogger. I went visiting Tiny Bull Studios, an indie game studio developing an amazing virtual reality game called BLIND, that will be available for all the main platforms: Vive, Rift, and PSVR.
I had this privilege because their headquarter is in Turin, my hometown, so just this once I had the pleasure to have an exclusive visit to a game studio before Upload VR or other such important VR magazines (yeah!). I know these guys since years because they were in the same incubator where my full-body-VR startup was growing. I always appreciated their commitment to developing a VR game, while also being very kind towards all other game developers during events and game jams.
And this time, they’ve been very kind, too: TBS’s CEO, Matteo Lana, kindly welcomed me in their office and we had a nice talk about what does mean being a game developer in VR and about the virtual reality world in general. For instance, I got to know that currently is very hard trying to obtain a pair of Valve Knuckles, even if you’re a game studio: they’re still given only to the most important Valve partners (like Cloudhead Games).
When we got to talk about the Blind game, Matteo revealed me that they’re working on this title for more than 2 years, and now finally they’re going to release the game to the public. The game is almost completed and they’re in the final stage of polishing and testing. Anyway, the release date will probably be in January 2018, since the review process for a PSVR game is really long and difficult. He explained to me that the usual review process for the PlayStation is full of hurdles, with a checklist of technical constraints that the software has to follow. Technically is possible that the reviewers accept the game at the first try, but very often this is not the case and usually the various reviewing iterations last at least 1 month and a half. Furthermore, in the PSVR case, Sony wants to be sure that the game provides a good VR experience and so there is a further stage of pre-review. Some times ago, I complained about Oculus store policy, but I discovered that publishing for console is much harder! So, in Q1 2018 we’ll be able to try this game for PSVR, Vive, and Rift. Further platforms (Microsoft headsets) are something they’re considering, but they don’t want to announce anything if they’re not sure. About the price… Matteo didn’t want to reveal the expected price, but he said that it will be in line with the price of the other indie games on the market.
After a long talk about all the business and technical aspects of the game, I finally managed to try the demo! He said that he demoed the game to many people in important exhibitions (like the Gamescom) and that almost all the feedbacks were positive. Yeah, great, but… stop talking now!
I put his Oculus Rift on and grabbed the Oculus Touch controllers. The game started and a simple 2D menu asked me if I wanted to play, set controls or exit (why? I’ve just begun!). I admit I’d have preferred to see an immersive 3D menu for such a cool experience (like the ones in Sneaky Bears VR or Face Your Fears), maybe letting you start the game using a white stick with which hitting some objects (Later you’ll understand the reasons for such proposals of mine). But when they started developing, 3D menus were not that popular in VR, so I think that’s the reason why it is so much 2D.
After I hit Play, a video should have started explaining the story of the game, but it was removed from that build for various reasons, so I had the video replaced by the soothing voice of Matteo telling me what I should imagine seeing. For a game named “Blind”, substituting a video with a narrating voice seems the right approach :).
Anyway, the story is as follow: you’re a girl that is going somewhere by car with her little brother. The car has an accident and everything becomes black to you. Suddenly you wake up somewhere in an unknown house: your brother is vanished and you can’t see anymore. But not everything is lost: magically you start seeing using sounds, like Daredevil (but there’s no Jennifer Gartner, sorry). Using your cleverness and this new superpower, you have to understand where you are, where your brother is and escape safely with him. The more you play, the more the story will unfold and you will understand who took you there, how can you save your brother and so on, until in the end… I can’t spoil, sorry :D. The game should gift you various hours of VR gameplay, with a strong attention towards storytelling (that in VR is always super-important) and puzzle-solving. Because yes, the game is all about solving puzzles, so you don’t use Gatlin guns to blind-shoot people or monsters, sorry. (Maybe in Blind 2, who knows)
The idea of being blind inside a VR game intrigued me since the first time that I heard Tiny Bull Studio’s idea and I think that they’ve implemented it in a nice way. The mechanism is well-known to gamers and is called echolocation. Basically, all the sound waves bouncing on surfaces make you see the part of the objects they’re bouncing from. But notice that you don’t see these parts as colored, but only whitish since the soundwave can’t carry with it the information about surface color. An Image can convey the idea better for sure, so here you are a screenshot from Blind.
As you can see, all whitish areas are the ones from which a sound wave has bounced until reaching your ears… and the more the area is white, the more a strong sound wave has bounced on it. This means that if there’s no noise, you see everything as completely black; if there’s something playing music, you see that area as sharp white; and so on. To trigger sound waves and so see something, you’re provided with a white stick (like the ones used by blind people), that you beat on objects to trigger the noise and so some “light” around the room. Matteo revealed me that implementing the echolocation was incredibly hard, especially because they wanted to make it very well. Even if while playing it is quite hard to be noticed, soundwaves bounce differently from different surface types. So beating the stick on the floor or on a piece of furniture is different, for instance. So they did their best to create something that was realistic from a physics standpoint. The result is fascinating, as you can see.
What I didn’t like about it is that it didn’t convey me a sense of fear of such. Waking up as a little blind girl would be quite shocking for me (especially for the “girl” part), but I didn’t have this impression when I started playing the game. I quickly adapted in seeing in black and white and it became normal for me. I had no fear at all. Maybe knowing that it is a puzzle game and not a Slenderman one, gave me a more relaxed approach. This can be the reason.
Anyway, in the part of the game that I played, I’ve been able to visit some rooms of the house. At game start, there was a gramophone through which an unknown (surely evil) person welcomed me into the house and guided me to the first puzzles. The first one was quite simple (I had just to find the key in the room) and this is great because it lets the player become confident with the control system. The control scheme is quite standard: there’s standard locomotion, with fixed-step rotation. I had no motion sickness issues at all, but I’ve also to say that I’m not a fan of fixed-step rotation, since it breaks the immersion a bit. You can use Touch triggers to interact with object and to trigger the famous stick through which you can “see”. I loved that there were a lot of interactive objects in the scene, so I could take for instance books from the shelf and throw them in the air… to see a big white wave spreading through the room as they fell on the floor (the noise they make when they fall makes everything become lit).
Enigmas are of different kinds: in the second room, I found one clearly based on music, another one on a labyrinth and a third one that required attention to haptic feedback. It’s great that TBS try to use all the 3 available sense in enigmas: being a game whose main character is a blind girl, using only sight would have had no sense. If smell and taste would be available in current VR, I guess that TBS would have implemented them in Blind too. The problem with the game enigmas is that it is not always clear what it has to be done: for instance in the enigma requiring to listen to haptic feedback I had absolutely no clue that I had to do that… I was in trouble when Matteo gave me a hint. After the demo, I asked Matteo how a player can solve that enigma without having him staying next to the player and he told me that the game will hint automatically the player when in trouble. There are various hint levels, from the slightest to the most complete, that the game gives you if it perceives that you’re stuck at some point. That’s a great news. He told me that so there will be no “Monkey Island” moment in the game when the player will be super-frustrated and will try to activate a fountain employing a monkey.
After solving some puzzles, I finally arrived at meeting my “enemy”, or whoever was talking with me. But in that moment Matteo ended the demo, saying that he will make me try the complete game when they’ll be closer to the final launch. Damn.
I came out with the impression of an intriguing game. The idea of impersonating a blind person using a virtual reality headset, a device empowering sight, is very original. I also loved the use of storytelling and as a developer, I admire all the hard work they’ve done to implement the echolocation. About how much the game will be enjoyable, it will depend on the quality of all the enigmas. If the conundrums during the whole game will be too hard or easy, the game will be really bad, otherwise, it will be good. Anyway, the premises are good.
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